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Tetra Paks

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By Alan McGinty

When tetra paks were introduced, the focus was on the packaging - fun, re-sealable and "green" (i.e., more efficient to manufacture, distribute and dispose of than bottles), and of course a litre instead of 750ml. I don't recall much talk about the wine, and now I know why.

I'd been looking forward to trying over 70 tetra paks on March 16th, expecting to find a dozen or more OK ones, but it was hands down the worst tasting I've attended in over four years as a wine writer.

There's only one I'd recommend, so let's get that out of the way: Kumala Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa. $11.95/L (just $8.96 if it were 750ml). I wrote "very characteristic grassy nose, fairly bland on palate but herbaceous flavours there, hint of tropical fruit too." It ain't Sancerre or New Zealand, but it's what you'd expect from a South African sauvignon blanc and nicely cheap. Throw a couple in the cooler when you head to the lake this summer.

I used a scale of 5 for this tasting and scored the Kumala at 3.5: it was the only one scoring above 3, my minimum for "drinkable". A further 13 wines hit the three mark, so, by my reckoning, you have a one in 72 chance of getting an OK wine, a one in five chance of getting something passable, and zero chance of getting something genuinely good in a random grab of a tetra pak.

Let's start with the worst. A minority of the offerings featured not only bad wine, but garish branding. How about "Red Lips Chardonnay": a massive, whorish lip print slopped across a silver tetra pak. Bold typography. If you were in town looking for some fun late at night, drunkenly calling up numbers from the back of a freesheet, this skank wouldn't make it past hotel security: "cardboard, no fruit, no finish, acid ok," I wrote, giving it 1.5 points.

Then there were the Frisky Zebras from South Africa, red and white - send these losers back to the Serengeti. Frisky Zebras Sensuous Sauvignon Blanc, within its unsexy packaging, contained wine that had "no sauvignon blanc characteristics at all, no fruit, [but] zippy acid tho." I gave it 1.5. It's red sister, Frisky Zebras Seductive Shiraz, merited "no comment" and 1.5.

Maybe, because you're a bit of a cinephile, you want to try "Out of Africa Shiraz" because… why not? Well, $12.95 gets you "candied, bland" and 1.0 points, that's why not. Its chardonnay sister scored the same, and will give you "too acidic - the fake kind. No fruit." Or there's Niagara's "Out of the Box Cabernet Sauvignon": that shit needs to stay in the box. It'll give you "bad nose. bad palate," and get 0.5 points from me. Or "Pret à Boire Syrah," which is in fact pret à flushing down the toilet, especially after you've gagged on the "cardboard nose, acidity odd" whiff that tells you where this liquid plumber belongs. I scored it 0.5. At least it's just $9.55.

There's more disappointment. California's "Vendange Shiraz", $6.95 (for 500ml) earned 1.0 points and "fruit juice". Peller Estates stepped up for Niagara and tripped, with 1.0 points and "flat, not fruity, acidic, undertone of chemicals" for its "French Cross Pinot Grigio". The French would be cross if they were to blame. But then France is guilty of "Le Petit Sommelier Chardonnay": "oxidized, bland, round, no fruit," and 0.5 points, and a "Beaujolais Reserve", that makes any over-hyped "Nouveau" seem like a grand cru. I noted it as "terrible" and worth 1.0 points.

I started to forget what passable meant after choking down more winery leftovers from France: "Pinossimo Pinot Noir Vin du Pays D'Oc", which garnered "bad nose. thin, flavourless," and 1.0 points. Then Italy's lame "Anfora Sangiovese Del Lazio", with its "tannins evident, fake chemical taste" and 1.5 points, and vile "Botter ‘Alex' Sangiovese" with its "nail polish remover nose, bland palate" and 1.0 points.

No one country monopolized the bad, but, if you must buy a tetra pak look to Australia, which consistently managed to deliver entries hitting at least 2.0 points. But this is faint praise: "a bit sour and a hint of cardboard. Not much fruit, acid OK," for Banrock Station Cabernet Sauvignon or "completely undistinguished" for Alice White Cabernet Sauvignon. "Kelly's Revenge" and "Hardy's Reserve" chardonnay were OK as well. Australia's "Baldivis Chardonnay Cheer Pack" was indeed cheering, scoring 3.0 with an asterisk (i.e., better than 3.0, not quite 3.5). It had a "weird chemical nose initially, but soon gave nice fruity notes. Better on the palate, with vanilla hints. Acid OK, but could be sharper." Other than the "Vendange", California's offerings were generally OK - Beringer Stone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon was actually drinkable, as was its pinot grigio. Ditto Three Thieves Bandit Pinot Grigio.

And what about the creature that started this whole thing? Well, French Rabbit Chardonnay was actually one of my highest scorers: 3.0 with an asterisk and "bland, but nice bit of vanilla, not much fruit, acid OK." Forget their pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon (1.5 points each), and, while their "Reserve Red" is drinkable, it's a shocking $17.95 and a "very average MOR wine." Their merlot, at $12.95, is actually better and "a bit thin and lacks fruit, but OK."

So the best you can hope for with a tetra pak is something not awful. I even wondered if producers were taking old or lower quality wines and packaging them up with the view that the tetra paks are a gimmick that will appeal to non-wine drinkers who wouldn't know the difference, but of course I don't know. What I do know is that producers are not taking the wine in tetra paks seriously and neither should you.


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